Are ISIS and al-Shabaab playing the odds?

We have become sadly all too familiar with the barbaric acts of the group ISIS that involve killing innocent people in terrible ways. Arun Gupta describes how that group became the new face of evil.

By the time Hussein was dispatched in December 2006 after a show trial and botched execution, Washington had found a new face of evil in the form of religiously motivated resistance to the Occupation. The shift was remarkable. The enemy seamlessly transitioned from Hussein, whose roots were as a modernist authoritarian socialist, to al-Qaeda offshoots, which tend to be medieval fundamentalists.

This shift reveals how all sides in the “war on terror” use propaganda to shape the perception of the war and even the battlefield itself. Propaganda, though, is a one-way question for the West where commentators obsess over media produced by the Islamic State. Often referred to as ISIS, the extremist group regularly releases videos of mass beheadings, immolations, and parading prisoners in cages.

ISIS has honed an image at once terrifying, effective, dedicated, and vengeful. It uses it to draw recruits from the West, financing from wealthy Gulf State patrons, and the allegiance of militants from Egypt to Indonesia. But ISIS’s real skill is in exploiting power vacuums in Iraq, Syria, and Libya resulting from Western intervention and weak sectarian states. Likewise, its propaganda is a reflection of and response to the West, mainly the atrocities the United States has inflicted upon Iraq and other countries in the region.

Of course, this is not a contest of equals. The United States is a global power, and ISIS is little more than a paper tiger. Analyst Gary Brecher notes ISIS has a relatively small fighting force with little ability to defeat a conventional army, which is how nearly all wars are won, or govern a population, which is how the peace is secured.

It seems like the Somalia-based group al-Shabaab, linked to al Qaeda, has decided to challenge ISIS for the dubious title of the face of evil with such acts as a murderous rampage at a university in Kenya that left 147 people, mostly young women, dead.

On the surface, such brutality might seem counter-productive. Classical guerrilla warfare was seen primarily as a battle for the hearts and minds of people, persuading the local populace that the insurgent forces were on their side, their protectors, and worthy of being aligned with. These murderous acts would seem to be a sure way of alienating the population. You might be able to instill fear in them so that they don’t oppose you, at least publicly, but you are unlikely to win their allegiance.

But it may be that the calculation has changed because of sheer numbers involved. If these groups can persuade Muslims that they are under a global attack by the Christian west and they are seeking recruits to fight back, then this strategy might make sense. While such barbaric acts will cause most Muslims to peel away in disgust, and there is some evidence that this is happening, the catch is that when you are talking about a global Muslim population of about 1.6 billion, you only need a minuscule fraction of people who are willing to overlook such acts, or even welcome them, to get the small numbers of recruits they need to fight what is after all a regional conflict. As long as they have a sufficient number of fighters, they can afford to alienate the general Muslim population as long as they can be intimidated into remaining on the sidelines. They may well have calculated that the odds are in favor.

As I have written before, one reason for such acts might be to goad the west, particularly the US, into getting more involved in a war in that region to reinforce that idea that this is a Christian war on Islam. To his credit, despite his continuing drone and other acts of warfare in that region, president Obama has at least resisted talking in those terms and has been much criticized by the warmongers and Islamophobes for doing so. But given the way that warhawks in the US have been hysterical about ISIS and acting like at any moment they will invade the US and start beheading people in Kansas, it seems like we are just one new major brutality away from seeing that happen.


  1. says

    the new face of evil

    I don’t approve of assigning a “face of evil” soubriquet. That implies that there are some evils that are greater than others and we should worry about the current “face of evil” more than the ordinary faces of evil. It is that kind of attitude that has allowed the US to consistently be, um, evil, while pointing and screeching at others.

  2. says

    It’s ‘funny’… These fanatics are enriching the very heart of the ‘West’ that they so claim to despise…The U.S. MIC is MORE than happy to give raison d’etre to a bunch of preening impotent cut-throats…It’s good for business…

    This is CLEARLY the sickest symbiotic relationship in the world right now…It’s like two parasites fighting over control of the host

  3. says

    On the surface, such brutality might seem counter-productive. Classical guerrilla warfare was seen primarily as a battle for the hearts and minds of people, persuading the local populace that the insurgent forces were on their side, their protectors, and worthy of being aligned with.

    That isn’t true at all.

    First off, it’s not “guerilla” warfare, it’s “insurgency” (Guerillas are non-formation military aligned and supported by another state, whereas insurgents are organically raised and not formal troops. It’s the difference between the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Army) Insurgents goals are to separate the population from government, to degrade the government’s ability to operate and cause it to collapse. To do that, insurgents can both terrorize the population into not helping the government and help them when it’s useful. During the Vietnam War many times the VC would arrive at a village, kill a bunch of people, and declare the village to be on their side. This had the obvious effect of increasing the territory they “held” as well as incurring a cost for the “legitimate” government to re-take the area. In the meantime it affected the economy of the government and utterly screwed their logistics because they could not rely on VC-terrorized areas not to “flip” and when violence starts normal people put their heads down and try to protect themselves -- they don’t get a lot of extra production work done.

    If it sounds like what I’m saying is that ISIS appears to be stealing Ho Chi Mihn’s playbook, that’s exactly what I am saying. This is a scary scenario I have worried aloud about for years (if you go back a ways and search for postings by me with references to Ho Chi Mihn, you’ll probably find a few) The potential that the islamic Ho Chi Mihn might some day arise. I mostly worry/worried about that happening in Palestine because Israel simply could not survive the kind of pain and expense a Vietcong-style insurgency would bring. Another seriously depressing sign that ISIS “gets it” is the whole Tikrit affair: an insurgency that can destabilize an entire town, then fade away, costs the “legitimate” government a huge amount to clear, remove booby traps, and repair the damage they did to their own town. It simultaneously stretches their supply lines, costs them more than they can afford, demonstrates that the government is incompetent, and further isolates the victims(people) It doesn’t matter to the insurgents if they come in and kill a load of people, because when they leave the legitimate government is also going to come in and kill a load of people. That way, when they come back (and they probably never completely left) it will be even easier to separate the people from the government.

    ISIS is not being randomly violent. ISIS is suppressing anyone who might have an objection, and creating an environment of destabilization and terror. That is exactly the playbook. They are moving around and re-appearing in various places, and costing the “legitimate” government more than they can afford, while collecting weapons and gaining strenght. That is exactly the playbook. This asshole Baghdadi appears to be able to do his research, and appears to have done some thinking, which means he’s incredibly dangerous to the established powers in the region.

    Note I used scare-quotes around “legitimate” referring to governments involved. That is also a crucial aspect of the playbook: the people don’t believe the US puppet government of Iraq is legitimate. Hell, the US doesn’t even appear to believe it is. Ditto Syria. The US, through incredible world-class stupidity, created a situation exactly like the French created in Indochina (with Maliki in the role of Diem) Basically, we opened an opportunity a mile wide and someone intelligent who hates the US -- Baghdadi -- is driving a truck right through it. The idiots running US foreign policy apparently forgot how Vietnam played out.

    Let me make a prediction: if Baghdadi is really following Ho’s playbook, the next step will be irritation attacks against US/coalition bases, to draw in more defenders and bulk them up -- because that’s how 1st world countries fight counter-insurgency. Remember, the reason the marines had to deploy to vietnam was to protect the air bases that were launching the bombing runs. The first rule of quagmires is to make them attractive. The next move after that is to get the stupid enemy to forward-deploy like the French did at Dien Bien Phu. Hopefully the US leaders are smart enough to avoid that trap, but: Afghanistan.

    Anyone who’s interested in what’s going on should read Halberstam’s “the best and brightest” Santayana was right.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    Marcus Ranum @ # 3 -- While I can’t argue with the main thrust of your analysis, this line --

    Guerillas are non-formation military aligned and supported by another state…

    -- pushes my armchair historian’s buttons. Recall, for example, the origin of the word “guerrilla” in the Spanish resistance to French occupation under Napoleon I: yes, the English were chipping in to help out, but the original guerrillas were a genuine grassroots militia.

    Oh, and everybody else spells the late Chairman’s name “Ho Chi Minh.

  5. fentex says

    It is amusing to see Gary Brecher referred to as an analyst.

    His War Nerd writings are entertaining and interesting, but hardly the stuff of serious analytical insight into political and military realities.

  6. brucegee1962 says

    “pushes my armchair historian’s buttons”

    Didn’t we see that chair in one of the James Bond movies? Don’t push the red one — I think it operates the trebuchet.

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